Here is what I did in 2014: I worked with Evil Hat to publish Designers & Dragons. After some great support through a Kickstarter, it’s now out there in the wild. Thanks guys! You should see it in your FLGS this month, but you can also order the softcovers from Evil Hat, the various eBooks from Evil Hat, or the hardcovers from DriveThruRPG.
With that said, what’s been going on with the rest of the industry?
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #2 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.
A Few Farewells. Sadly, we lost a few more of the industry’s pioneers in 2014.
Aaron Allston may be best-known for his Mystaran work on GAZ1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos (1987) and the Basic Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia (1991) or maybe for producing one of the first intimate looks at a personal campaign in Aaron Allston’s Strike Force (1988), but he generally did great work for a variety of publishers from Steve Jackson Games to TSR, then went on to a successful novel-writing career.
Jean Blashfield Black was the first Managing Editor of TSR’s Book Department. She greenlit Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman to write the Dragonlance Chronicles series, and so was responsible for much of the Book Department’s later success.
Dave Trampier was one of TSR’s earliest artists. He’s best known for the idol-thieving cover of the original AD&D Players Handbook (1978) and for his long-running “Wormy” comic strip in Dragon magazine. He rather mysteriously disappeared in 1988 and never again worked in the gaming industry for reasons that are still unknown. Around 2002, a few people reported that he was still alive and driving a taxi cab. He finally reconnected with the gaming industry last year by talking to Scott Thorne, the owner of Castle Perilous Games & Books in Illinois, and had arranged to appear at a local Illinois gaming convention, where Thorne hoped to put him in touch with Troll Lord Games … but Trampier died three weeks before the convention.
The Return of D&D. The biggest news of the year was the reappearance of D&D in a new fifth edition (2014). It premiered with a Starter Set (2014) in July and has continued through a traditional set of three core 5e rulebooks as well as a pair of adventures: Hoard of the Dragon Queen (2014) and The Rise of Tiamat (2014). In a big change from 3e days, it looks like Wizards will be focusing more on adventures; and in a big change from 4e days, it looks like these adventures will be the spine of Wizards’ D&D production. It’ll be interesting to see how this adventure-focused 5e product line develops, but in the meantime it was a joy to see seven D&D products — which includes Legacy of the Crystal Shard (2014), the final print Encounters adventure. That’s the most new D&D publications since 2011, which saw eight — and hopefully there will be even more in 2015.
The response to 5e seems to be generally good, and certainly not as divisive as the 4e (2008) release, which rent the entire hobby for five years. However, the response to 5e has also been a bit middling. Local reports suggest that sales have been good, but not great, and that player base has been interested but not ecstatic.
Unfortunately, D&D had some issues as well in 2014.
The Encounters program — which was perhaps the best thing to come out of the 4e era — seems to have lost its focus. Its adventures first went PDF-only, then the program got totally subsumed into Wizards’ standard production schedule. So, Encounters players were running the Starter Set adventure in summer, and have since moved on to the two “Tyranny of Dragons” adventures. As a result, the program has lost its uniqueness; Encounters is now just a venue to play the same games you could play anywhere else.
Meanwhile, the official D&D support team seems to be shrinking, with the latest defection being superstar James Wyatt, who headed over to the Magic: The Gathering division. This followed most of the 5e design team — including Robert J. Schwalb, Bruce Cordell, and Monte Cook — leaving in 2013 and 2014. Recent reports suggest a surviving D&D team of just a dozen members, including Mike Mearls, Jeremy Crawford, Greg Bilsland, Chris Perkins, Rodney Thompson, Peter Lee, Matt Sernett, Chris Sims, and a few others.
Finally, the release of 5e was paired with the disappearance of a decade-and-a-half worth of old D&D content from the web, dumping the history of D&D straight down the memory hole. Much of it has reappeared at Archive.Wizards, but it’s still incomplete and a bit difficult to get to. This historian in particular is eager to see everything return and get properly indexed, as it’s grown harder to write about the history of D&D in the last several months.
Overall, I think 5e is just what both Wizards and D&D needed, which means it’s just what the industry needed. But I think a higher level of success has been lost from the high-flying days of d20, or even from the earliest days of 4e, and I’d like to see the industry recover that.
Paizo Levels Up. Paizo is certainly still a top-two producer of RPGs, but the publication of D&D 5e has to make their position precarious. However, they’ve previously proven themselves one of the most agile publishers around, and once more they’ve started work on a major new initiative that could replace their old bread-and-butter just-in-time. The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013) is one of the most innovative releases to hit the hobbyist industry in some time, and this year they pushed it hard. I’d hate to see Paizo move from RPGs to board games, as many publishers in the industry have, but I’m thrilled to see them with a major, successful line that shouldn’t be as sensitive to the changing tides of fantasy roleplaying.
The Field is Expanding Again. I said that 2013 was a surprisingly strong year for much of the roleplaying industry, and that trend seemed to continue in 2014. I think our biggest new entrant for the year is Modiphius Entertainment, who has supplemented last year’s successful Achtung! Cthulhu (2013) with the release of Sarah Newton’s Mindjammer RPG (2014) and a very popular Kickstarter for Mutant Chronicles 3e. Going forward, I look forward to seeing Chris Birch’s continued work in the roleplaying field.
Modiphius is a UK-based company, and that’s a region that produced some major roleplaying publishers in the ’00s, including Cubicle 7 and Mongoose Publishing. Though they both hit some harder times in the early ’10s, they seem to be on their way back up too. Cubicle 7 is publishing more regularly, with a focus on their own hits like Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space (2009) and The One Ring (2011), while Mongoose is back in distribution after a few (surprising) years away. This is thanks to Studio 2 Publishing, a fulfillment company and publisher who’s also been helping out Agate RPG, the creator of Shadows of Esteren (2012+), in recent years.
However not all growth is happening in Britain. Monte Cook Games is the newest example of the Old Guard making good with new companies of their own. Monte Cook’s Numenera (2013) and The Strange (2014) RPGs have both been getting good attention this year, and once more it’ll be interesting to see if they’re able to build on that foundation.
Corporate Hijinx Continue. I first wrote about corporations scooping up RPG publishers way back in 2008, when Mongoose Publishing, White Wolf, and the Champions IP all got grabbed. Unfortunately, that’s turned out pretty terribly for folks who actually like tabletop RPGs. Hero Games has largely closed up shop, Mongoose Publishing was maimed and is only now recovering, and White Wolf, well …
I’ve been writing about the latest damage done to the “it” RPG publisher of the ’90s because of their corporate takeover for years now, and sadly 2014 saw the final shoe drop when the World of Darkness Online was shut down and the final vestiges of White Wolf were mostly killed. Fortunately, White Wolf’s RPG production had largely moved to Onyx Publishing already, but the long, drawn out death of White Wolf itself was still a terrible thing to watch.
Meanwhile, in the haven’t-we-learned category, Fantasy Flight Games merged with Asmodee Group, a French board game publisher who had themselves been purchased by investment group Eurazeo at the start of the year. Here, FFG joined successful board game publisher Days of Wonder, who was scooped up earlier in the year.
Now, every claim has been made that FFG is going to continue with business as usual, but much the same was said when White Wolf was picked up by CCP. It seems likely to me that FFG’s board games are going to continue well under Asmodee, but I would not be making any long-term investments that depend on Fantasy Flight being in the roleplaying business — especially given this year’s cancellation of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3e (2009) and the mixed reception they received for Dark Heresy 2e (2014). I hope to be proven wrong, but the record of corporate roll-ups of RPG companies has been very poor, with even D&D failing to meet the expectations of its megacorp masters.
Controversies Continue. For better or for worse, the internet drives controversies and there were a few of particular note in 2014. They started with the publication of the 5e Starter Set and the revelation that two persons who are widely viewed as internet bullies were consultants for the game. This poisoned a lot of the early discussion of the newest version of our industry’s top game, and unfortunately caused some loss of faith in the 5e design team. Some fans may well have abandoned 5e because of the controversy, but beyond that it now seems to have blown over.
Meanwhile, problems with misogyny that have been bubbling up across the hobbyist industries for years reappeared in the video game field in 2014 as part of a rather grotesquely woman-hating movement called “#GamerGate”, which extensively harassed and threatened female video game designers. It unfortunately detoured into the tabletop field when James Desborough got involved. Desborough has had troubles with being called a misogynist in the past, as I detailed back in 2012. He revisited this problem in 2014 by strongly backing the #GamerGate movement. As part and parcel of this, he created a #GamerGate card game and uploaded it to DriveThruRPG. For the first time in 13 years, DriveThru banned a title, removing the game entirely from its catalog.
Though the consultant and #GamerGate controversies both suggest some darkness underlying the roleplaying community on the internet, I actually think the #GamerGate problems point toward a long-term positive. In my opinion, we’re seeing so much adolescent sociopathy about women because of that fact that women are becoming an increasingly important part of the gaming community. It’s an action-reaction that I believe to be the last dying gasp of a culture that most of us will happily see gone. Meanwhile, publishers and web sites are becoming increasingly opposed to misogyny — such as when Posthuman Studios fired its MRA fans. (RPGnet has of course done its best to create a safe, protective environment for years.)
I think an increasing acceptance of sexual identity is going hand-in-hand with this, and it also saw notable growth in 2014, when Wizards of the Coast made a strong statement about accepting different gender and sexual identities in D&D 5e. Mind you, that’s been part of a long process, with Paizo already pushing the envelope for several years now.
Crowd Funding Settles in for the Long Haul. For several years now, I’ve written each January 1st about how Crowd Funding has become even more important. As of 2014, I think it’s officially arrived, and that it’s settled in as a crucial, ongoing part of our industry.
Mind you, there are still problems and growing pains. Kickstarter was forced to update their TOS this year to better account for failure. Meanwhile, a few roleplaying companies learned that delayed kickstarters can do serious damage to their reputations. Palladium got some real flak when they announced that they’d be releasing their 8-month overdue Robotech Tactics (2014) game at Gen Con unless a majority of backers (not a majority of voting backers) asked otherwise; fans were very unsupportive, and in the end Palladium burned bridges for no good reason, as their game still wasn’t available by August. However, it was probably Gareth-Michael Skarka’s Far West that became the 2014 poster child for late Kickstarters. Over three years after the book’s funding, Gareth is making daily posts chronicling the project’s trials and tribulations.
Looking at the top line, the big RPG Kickstarters did just as well in 2014 as 2013. This year saw 15 Kickstarters top $100,000, compared to 16 in 2013, and the top funding amount at $600,000+ was almost exactly the same.
Here’s a look at those releases:
|1. Mage: the Ascension 20th
|2. Paranoia RPG
|3. Numenera Boxed Set Edition
|4. V20: The Dark Ages
|5. Wraith: The Oblivion 20th
|6. Mutant Chronicles 3e
|7. Feng Shui 2
|8. Shadows of Esteren IV: Tuath
|9. The Dracula Dossier
|10. 13th Age in Glorantha
|11. Designers & Dragons
|12. Earthdawn 4e
|13. Lone Wolf Adventure Game
|15. W20: Book of the Wyrm
I’m of course very proud that Designers & Dragons is #11 in that countdown. More generally, I find it interesting that so many of the top Kickstarters are historical releases. Mage, Paranoia, Dark Ages, Mutant Chronicles, Wraith, Feng Shui, Earthdawn, Lone Wolf, and Book of the Wyrm are all nostalgic releases to various extents. If you add in Designers & Dragons and (maybe) 13th Age in Glorantha, that’s about 70% of the new Kickstarters. Though I love me some history (clearly), I’m happy that Agate RPG, Monte Cook Games, and Pelgrane Press are putting out new products as well — perhaps creating the nostalgic releases for the ’30s!
And finally, no history of 2014 would be complete without mentioning Patreon. Kickstarters are hard, with each one requiring a new business plan and a lot of hard work, so it’s terrific to see a different model, where fans can crowdfund ongoing projects via a subscription. Evil Hat Productions has made the most successful use of Patreon with its Adventures & Worlds for Fate Core. They’re currently netting about $3,300 per product created, which isn’t on the scale with a successful Kickstarter, but is apparently just enough to pay the costs for a PDF-only product.
What’s to Come? With a strong foundation in 5e, D&D should quickly return to its place as the best-selling game in the roleplaying industry (something that I’ve actually been saying for a couple of years), provided that Wizards is willing to continue supporting it. I’m also pretty sure that means we’re going to see a dozen or more official D&D releases in 2015, something that we’ve been missing for almost half-a-decade(!). I also dearly hope that newcomers like Monte Cook Games and Modiphius will reveal themselves as new movers-and-shakers, so that I can write about them someday in Designers & Dragons: The ’10s.
As for me? Based on the interest in the Designers & Dragons Kickstarter, I plan to get back to work on Designers & Dragons, after taking a couple of months off this fall. I’ve got ideas for at least three more books that would further expand the history of the industry, with a plan to work on them in the next 2-3 years. Meanwhile, you’ll see some shorter bits from me here on a bi-monthly schedule, probably starting with the patron-backed histories I wrote during the Kickstarter.
Thanks for your support over the years and Happy 2015